Saturday 19 August 2017

Getting the 'O'K from Oprah

Designer Don O'Neill strikes gold as his dress splashes the chat-show queen's magazine, writes Donal Lynch

ALL SMILES NOW: But there
was a fraught wait before
Don O’Neill saw his dress on
the cover. Photo: Neville Elder
ALL SMILES NOW: But there was a fraught wait before Don O’Neill saw his dress on the cover. Photo: Neville Elder

She may have recently finished up her long-running show, but Oprah Winfrey's magical hold over America's consumers shows no sign of abating. The mere mention of a product by the chat-show goddess is enough to turn a fledgling business into a multi-million dollar venture. She is aggressively courted by everyone from organic farmers to book publishers. Her endorsement is simply the holy grail of free marketing.

So when the lifestyle queen's production team let it be known that she was considering wearing a dress by Manhattan-based fashion designer Don O'Neill on the cover of her magazine O, the dapper Kerryman could hardly contain his excitement. Oh, sure he had designed dresses for the likes of Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, but Oprah would be his most high-profile client yet. Her interest wasn't entirely a bolt from the blue: she had featured his label, Theia, in her magazine before, but she had never worn a design herself. He knew seeing his dress on her would be "like winning the lottery".

Still Don, who worked with Christian Lacroix in Paris after leaving Ireland in the 1980s, knew that the chat icon wearing his dress was anything but a done deal yet. The first step would be a meeting with the fashion editor of the magazine. "When she came up to see the collection, she fell in love with the dresses and almost died when she saw this densely embroidered gown," Don said. "She literally grabbed it off the hanger and took it with her that night to Chicago as a possible September cover option. Many beautiful top-designer gowns were also selected."

In fact, a dozen dresses were commissioned by Oprah's team and Don knew from experience not to count his chickens. He had also been asked to make a dress for the anniversary edition of the magazine and had "held my breath 'til I was blue in the face", before being disappointed to learn that Oprah had decided to go with an Isaac Mizrahi gown for that particular cover.

Eventually, Oprah's team asked Don to custom make the gown for her (her measurements are "classified", he adds) and with only four weeks until the magazine's deadline, a frenzy of work began at his New York studio. The gown Oprah had chosen was embroidered with more than one million sequins and arrived in Chicago not a moment too soon. Don was told that Oprah had personally selected the dress and loved it. The editor in chief of the magazine Susan Casey adored it as well and ordered one for herself. Knowing that her endorsement is worth megabucks, Oprah is probably the last person who needs to fork out for a product. However, uniquely perhaps among her celebrity brethren, the chat-show queen likes to do things the old fashioned way. "She asked for the price of the gown, and paid for it," Don exclaims.

"She might be the only celebrity in the world who buys all of her dresses."

There followed a fraught wait -- stars of Oprah's calibre often change their minds at the last minute and nothing would be certain until the magazine hit newsstands. "About a month ago, they called for credit info, which is a huge deal," he says. "That means they are finalising the book for printing and needed all the information to credit the dress to Theia, price and availability." But still nothing was certain.

Then last Wednesday night at 6pm, Theia's head of PR Melissa Veniero came running into the office holding up the cover and screaming with excitement. They had made it on to Oprah's body. It was a major achievement for an eveningwear company which has been in shops for less than two years. "I had the idea, in order to celebrate, we would all wear T-shirts with the cover printed on them when we popped the champagne to mark this monumental milestone," Don says.

He sees the cover as the zenith of a career which has gone from success to success lately. The moral of the story, he says, is "that a boy from a tiny village on the west coast of Ireland [Ballyheigue, Co Kerry] can dream of making beautifully sparkly dresses and that one day that dream came true. That dream could come true for anyone who works hard.

"I think my influence on Irish fashion could be that my work and success to date is paving the way, that I will inspire some young boy or girl from Ireland to think, 'That could be me someday', and that they will go on to see their dreams come true and go far beyond what I have achieved."

For information on Don O'Neill and Theia, visit www.theiacouture.com; his designs are also available from Costume at 10 Castle Market, Dublin 2. Tel: (01) 6794188 for more details

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